Something happened to me this weekend, and it’s a lesson that can without question be applied to indie game design. I finally got around to playing Saints Row IV (it arrived in my mailbox via Gamefly sometime last week), and after about an hour of playing it? I stopped. I couldn’t make myself return to the game. I have never played a Saints Row game either, but besides that, I’m a fan of open-world games. I cannot wait for Watch_Dogs next month, I enjoy causing mayhem in a Grand Theft Auto game, and heck – my most played game on my Steam account is the overlooked open-world classic Just Cause 2.
But Saints Row IV? It did nothing for me. Thus, I found myself playing FTL: Faster Than Light on my iPad most of the weekend. Why did this happen?
I thought about it for a long time, and while I believe FTL is a much better game than Saints Row IV (not to mention a very different game), I knew there had to be another reason why I wasn’t enjoying myself. Then it hit me: I didn’t see the point.
Don’t get me wrong: Saints Row IV had me laughing out loud now and again. Yet in the end, I couldn’t find a reason why I needed to keep playing. Sure, I understand that I’m trapped in a simulation and need to overthrow an alien dictator in order to save the world from likely enslavement, and certainly, I understand I need to go from point A to B to Z and back again like in most open-world games, but again, what’s the point?
Then it dawned on me: I didn’t care about the protagonist of the game. He’s a jerk President, and while he has some laugh-out-loud moments, ultimately the writing of the game did not compliment the gameplay in any way. The gameplay felt uninspired, rehashed, and bland. Pretty good writing, mediocre gameplay.
As for FTL? The gameplay told the story – and every story was different. Every time my ship was destroyed, a new tale of fighting space pirates, slaver scum, and eliminating Mantis’ on my ship trying to destroy my oxygen bay and suffocate my shipmates told a tale of survival, courage, and my ship’s seemingly never-ending quest to stay a few steps ahead of the oncoming Rebel invasion while doing my part to save the galaxy. That’s the difference!
Gameplay should tell stories
It’s actually two-fold: gameplay should exemplify stories. Even a game as cutscene-heavy as those in the Metal Gear Solid series contain gameplay that improves even the best moments of the story. It’s neat to be able to see Solid Snake running around a tanker dodging death every which way, but to be able to play as Solid Snake, sneak around the environment, and accomplish objectives? That brings out the best in the game’s tale even further! Your indie game should do the same. Sure, it’s nice to have cutscenes that progress the tale of your game, but this isn’t a substitute for telling the tale via gameplay.
Gameplay should be interactive
What do I mean by this? The gameplay should make you feel as if you are making a difference in the world around you. Even text-heavy games such as the Ace Attorney series or point-and-click adventure titles such as The Walking Dead pull this off perfectly. While the gameplay may be limited to reading and choosing dialogue options or interacting with items, you still feel as if you play a vital role in the outcome of the game’s story. A game like Saints Row IV? I really didn’t feel as if my actions had any consequences. It’s a reason why I have never been able to fully appreciate the Borderlands games.
End of the day – make me care
Not all games need a compelling story to attract players (Tetris never needed this, after all), nor does every game need a story associated with the game. But if your game is going to tell a compelling story, ensure that it’s:
- Make players feel as if the actions in-game affect the world your protagonist encompasses.
- Ensure the protagonist is likeable (to some degree, anyway).
- Make certain that every aspect of your gameplay continuously progresses the story along.
Achieve these four elements of a story-driven game, and your indie game will be on the right path. Do you have any additional suggestions for perfectly crafting story-driven games? Let us know in the comments below!